Confusion on Sexual Assault Response Spurs Conversation

Campus Safety and Security’s mishandling of an incident of sexual misconduct late last week increased the urgency of ongoing conversations about sexual assault policy centered on Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

Stephen Briscoe, Director of Campus Safety and Security, said that when a student called requesting a student advocate, his office transferred the call to the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice (CRSSJ), and the survivor reached the CRSSJ’s voicemail. As they don’t have the names of any student advocates, Briscoe says his office should have contacted Chaplain Deanna Shorb, who is in charge of directing survivors to the resources they need, instead of transferring the student to the CRSSJ.

“What we will do in the future is make sure that all of our workers know that Deanna is the sexual advocate person and that she’s a confidential reporter too,” Briscoe said. “So if someone calls and asks for a student, Deanna’s the one we can put them in contact with…We’ll make sure all our staff knows that Deanna can be contacted [after hours] and can get in contact with the student advocates.”

Shorb has helped revitalize the Campus Advocates, who have historically been aligned with the Domestic Violence Alternatives/Sexual Assault Center. The Advocates are now distancing themselves from the organization due to student advocates’ desire not to be anonymous. The protocol for the response to instances of sexual misconduct is somewhat unclear.  Miriam Clayton ’15, a member of Campus Advocates, said that group members have been trained but are currently waiting to receive certification so that they will be able to represent survivors at the hospital or in a legal situation.

In years past, survivors have been able to contact the Advocates, who have been available to survivors as a confidential resource, via a hotline that was well publicized through a sticker campaign. However, with the current system in place, the Advocates are not functioning in the same capacity as they used to. But that will soon change. Starting this fall, Advocates will have their own hotline phone number for people to call and will make arrangements to have someone carry the phone with them on nights and weekends, in a set-up similar to the RLC-on-call system, according to Clayton.

Reports of sexual assaults on campus are uncommon. As sexual misconduct is difficult for most survivors to discuss or even define, many incidents go unreported.  However, the last two years have shown a dramatic increase in reporting. In 2009, the Clery Annual Disclosure Report shows three instances of sexual misconduct were reported, and in 2010, there were only two reported. Yet in 2011 that number increased to seven, and there have already been ten reported in 2012 alone.

Dean of Students Travis Greene does not think this increase in reports necessarily means that there has been an increase in incidents of sexual misconduct.

“We really have no way of knowing what that number means,” Greene said. “On a human level, you see the numbers and ask, what the heck is going on at Grinnell? But it could be that we’re doing the right things, that we’re getting our resources together, we’re sending a coherent and consistent message, we’re making reporting systems survivor-friendly. The conduct system is much tighter. So all of those things together could create an environment where students feel more comfortable to report.”

Together with Shorb, Greene is working to create a website with an all-inclusive list, including pictures, bios and contact information, of people and resources that survivors can use, both confidential and not. Shorb hopes that this will make finding information an easier, consolidated process for survivors.

“You could look and maybe be more comforted or more inclined to report or seek an advocate in your decisions about reporting if you knew there was someone who you felt more comfortable with whether it was because of gender, or racial/ethnic heritage, experience, what their discipline is. There are any number of things that might make you feel a kinship with this person or that this is a safe person,” Shorb said of the website.

Though protocol is currently slightly unsettled on the role of the Campus Advocates, both Shorb and Clayton are confident that the changes will be better defined and implemented in the fall. Greene is currently working with Student Affairs staff to find more ways to expand discussions of sexual health during New Student Orientation to include more on the topic of sexual misconduct.

“I think there’s a tension in our community about sex positivity and consent. If we can clarify what it means to be in an environment that celebrates all forms of diversity and being sex positive, but also working just as hard to make sure that students feel that they have consent and that they can be assertive and say, ‘no, that’s not okay,’ that’s an important direction to go,” Greene said. “But at the end of the day, we all recognize that there’s always more that the College could be doing to help support students not just with issues education, awareness, and prevention, but also how to be assertive so that when you’re in a situation and you’re not feeling comfortable, you feel like you have the skills to be assertive for what your own needs are.”